We recently shared an article on our Facebook page regarding “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and her thoughts, at least regarding this specific case, on voluntourism. You can read it for yourself here, but summed up, she explains in no uncertain terms that her organization, Lumos, does not support voluntourism.

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The thoughts below are of course, just that. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent that of Realized Worth, but we do believe this kind of discourse is important.



Corey Diamond: Interesting rant. Thoughts?



Katie Jarvis: I appreciate that she addressed the darker side of voluntourism (that these companies often exploit those they proclaim to help). But when I went on what was essentially a voluntourism trip, we were asked: Why would you spend that money just to come meet us? These men and women spent most of their lives feeling not just unwanted, but less than human. So I’d argue there is merit in showing up and giving your time and your attention to people, especially when you’re working with a marginalized group, even if it’s just so they can feel their own worth.

sabrinaiconSabrina Viva
: Wow. I have very strong feelings about this. On one hand, I agree with her about institutionalized orphanages. The aim should always be to reunite children with their families and to address the real systemic issues that allow for so many children to become orphans in the first place.

On the other hand, not all orphanages are state run institutions. I have had a first hand experience volunteering with an orphanage in Costa Rica that was run by an elderly couple. The state paid for two children, but they had 33 at the time. The countless volunteers I saw there were dedicated to supporting these children through education, music, art, and physical activity programs, to which they would otherwise not have access. In my case, I went on to do the shoebox campaign for 5 years after my trip. And while that didn’t solve any systemic issues in Costa Rica, I would like to believe that it gave them some hope and courage to push forward another day.

[peekaboo_link]Sabrina has more to say on this …[/peekaboo_link] [peekaboo_content]Other volunteers went on to help Habitat for Humanity build them an addition to their small home and lobby the municipal government to provide more funding. The local volunteer organization was an ambassador for them as well, partnering with food banks, schools, churches to create more programs and resources to support these children and give them education so that they would have the same opportunities that others had.

Voluntourism experiences may not always change the real societal issues in these communities, but based on my experiences, I believe that it creates that “thin space” that we always talk about. It happened to me and the result made me fall in love with volunteering. It made me a lifetime volunteer, but more importantly the proximity to those children fueled a desire in my heart to want to help them beyond my 1 week stint in Costa Rica. It educated me and propelled me to do more.

Perhaps the initial intent of voluntourism seems like a selfish act for the volunteer, but we could say the same about my time volunteering at a food shelter across the street. As we know, most volunteer experiences start off extrinsically motivated. That’s OK. Let’s not dump on creating more opportunities for people to volunteer and help others. Let’s celebrate this, give them the space to fall in love and become lifetime volunteers that will dedicate their life’s work to make this world a better place.[/peekaboo_content]

christineiconChristine Foster: I can completely see the argument you are making, but I also had an experience with voluntourism in Ghana and it singlehandedly made me swear off volunteering for a long time. I was stalling the education of the children I was responsible for and was taking away a job opportunity from a local person who could have benefited from employment.

I don’t disagree with the stipulation that the experience of the volunteer is important and can lead to individual transformation and increased volunteerism in that individual’s life. However, if the volunteer experience is at the expense of the beneficiary (which it can be depending on the activity/organization), then in my opinion the potential good it creates is displaced by the harm it does. And if the volunteer realizes this and their contribution to something other than good, it can result in a negatively positioned thin space/transformation that can dissuade a potential lifelong contributing volunteer from volunteering again.

As stated in our previous conversation, I think the organization and the volunteer opportunity itself is vital to evaluating whether “voluntourism” is helpful or harmful to our global society, both for beneficiaries and well-meaning volunteers.


: Couldn’t we argue the same thing about the hundreds of volunteer opportunities that are available in our own backyards?


christineiconCF: Absolutely! That’s why finding good partner organizations for corporate volunteering opportunities is so important for companies. They can either encourage or discourage volunteerism amongst employees based on the community and individual impact(s) of their volunteerism – locally or abroad.

I think we are on the same side – wanting equally good experiences for the beneficiary and the volunteer.


KJ: So where does that leave us? If volunteering can be harmful abroad and at home, is voluntourism the problem? Or is the real issue false information from organizations and a lack of research by would-be volunteers?


sabrinaiconSV: To your previous point, Christine, many nonprofits have limited (if any) funding and resources. Although their intentions to create a great volunteer experience for all volunteers is probably true, the reality is that they just can’t and/or don’t know how to do this.

This is where voluntourism and our field of corporate volunteering can play a larger role, sharing expertise through volunteering … skills-based, or even something many view as menial: virtual volunteering.

The good news in all of this is that there is a lot of room to improve the capabilities and knowledge of nonprofits, just as we currently do with corporations. We have an important role to educate and foster these important cross-sector partnerships so that they can grow and provide impactful, sustainable programs in our communities.

: I never said voluntourism is a problem. Nor did I say that one experience represents all experiences. Just simply that it can be [a problem]. Voluntourism becomes problematic when the activity or organization is doing more harm than good to the beneficiary (and especially when the volunteer themselves realize this and realize they are contributing to the harm). Unfortunately, there are many well documented cases of this around the world – which is why the word itself tends to have a negative connotation.

I think it is on the volunteers themselves (and in corporate volunteering cases – on the companies themselves) to ensure that the nonprofits with which they are partnering/volunteering:

a.) do more good than harm in the community they are claiming to service, and;

b.) the activity of the volunteer contributes good (or at the very least does not harm the population). There are many great examples out there – like yours, Sabrina! Sure, this might take some more work/research up front, but it’s better than the alternative.

Nonprofits can have limited resources and still do no harm. It’s about knowing who you choose to partner with to ensure that the impact of volunteering with them on the community, company and individual are positive rather than negative.

I agree with you Sabrina, there is also an opportunity to foster cross-sector collaboration to ensure outcomes are positive and sustainable in the communities we are trying to impact.


SV: Yes, I agree with you. This is where the hard work comes in. It’s nice to be part of the solution.


angiconAngela Parker
: Going back to Katie’s question (If volunteering can be harmful abroad and at home, is voluntourism the problem? Or is the real issue false information from organizations and a lack of research by would be volunteers?), I think it would be beneficial to define the problem – or at least parse out the issues. Here’s what I came up with:

Issue #1: The term “voluntourism.”

To me, this term feels negative. It starts the conversation with the assumption that volunteers are traveling to do volunteer work for their own pleasure – and that that’s inherently a bad thing. But is it not a similar scenario to a family deciding to serve food at a homeless shelter together at Christmas rather than eat a big meal at home? Shelters are overrun by volunteers at Christmas. They need people to serve meals the rest of the year and not just during the holidays. Isn’t this family being selfish? Serving for their own pleasure? Somehow we don’t see it that way. We see it as an admirable way that some families choose to adjust their posture at Christmastime and potentially change the longterm perspectives of their children who otherwise might forget that privilege is not afforded to everyone. In this sense, serving for our own pleasure is potentially life-changing.

Issue #2: The organizations.

Some NGOs and nonprofit organizations work with vulnerable populations who need to be protected from inexperienced or insensitive volunteers. At Realized Worth, we support the position that men, women, children, and animals who have been abandoned or abused or who are in otherwise vulnerable circumstances need consistent, committed, trained, and sensitive support in their lives. It is not appropriate to parade tourists through the lives of the vulnerable.

Christine provided two points to avoid this scenario:

… It is (the responsibility of) the volunteer themselves to ensure that the nonprofits they are partnering/volunteering with:
a.) does more good than harm in the community they are claiming to service, and;
b.) the activity of the volunteer contributes good (or at least does not harm the population)

Issue #3: The volunteers.

Voluntourists are often looking for an experience. Rather than just traveling for fun, they want to be immersed in the challenges facing societies. They want to go past the facades of restaurants and shops and be affected by the “real real.” The type of volunteering they find in “their own back yard” often does not promise to provide an experience. Unfortunately, this desire for an experience is sometimes seen as morally wrong – even though it’s a universally human phenomenon. But, to quote Joe Pine, “there is no such thing as an inauthentic experience. Why? Because the experience happens inside of us.”

I think volunteers and organizations (including companies!) can come together to provide the experience voluntourists are seeking. I think we can embrace the human desire to become immersed and changed. We can welcome “tourists” and be their gateway to longterm positive changes in their beliefs and behaviors. And most importantly, we can do this in a way that protects the vulnerable.

diconDainéal Parker: I agree that volunteers and organizations can come together to provide experiences for voluntourists, but for me, the question is: should they? Do we need to bother with vacationers with western savior complexes and their need to feel like they contributed?

My argument against voluntourism is very specific. And while the experience I mention below was incredible and I treasure the memory, I’m going to dispense with feelings and sentiment and consider the numbers.

In 2007, 3 other adults and I took 14 high schoolers to South Africa to participate in some AIDS relief programs. It cost $2700 per person, most of which was eaten up by travel expenses.

$2700/person + 18 persons = $48,600. Couple this with $300 or so of walking around money everyone brought, and you end up with another $5400, giving the entire excursion a budget of around $54,000.

Now, let me tell you about our accomplishments:

  • We painted a gymnasium (very RW, right?)
  • We built an in-ground trampoline
  • We packaged about 100 or so bags of food that could feed a family of 4 for weeks
  • We visited orphanages and spent time with the children there (though it is debatable what this accomplished)

I wonder how much it would cost to hire some local, cheap labor to paint a gym. Let’s say it takes 4 painters 8 hours to get the job done at $20/hour per worker. $640.

Let’s get those same workers to dig a hole for the trampoline, which they can do in half the time. $320.

When Chris, Corey, and I volunteered with AT&T at a food bank here in LA, there were probably a hundred high schoolers competing to see who could pack the most boxes full of food. I’m sure the organization I worked with in SA could round up some privileged folk from Cape Town High that would have done exactly what we did that day (and could probably have gotten a bunch of return volunteers that needed no training). Free.

As for visiting orphanages, well … sure, it’s special for the kids. They feel better for a moment. It’s important to keep them feeling loved and stimulated by new visitors with strange physical features (they were fascinated by my tattoos). But at the end of the day, we were sleeping in comfortable beds while they were still orphans in an orphanage. Depressing thought, I know, but it’s the harsh reality I refuse to look away from. Free.

So with a budget of more than $50,000, we provided about $1,000 worth of actual, real service. Let’s be generous and quadruple that number; we’re still sitting at a value of only 8%. All the while, we potentially robbed locals of temporary employment and/or volunteer experiences that could take tourists and make them travelers, travelers and make them guides. Because 9 years later, I haven’t been back there. But I will go to the LA Food Bank again because I’m connected to it, it’s local, it doesn’t cost $1500 and 20 hours to get there, and they need me.

What do you think those local organizations would have preferred: an afternoon with 18 random Americans they’ll never see again, or a generous contribution they can use to buy supplies, hire local workers, and develop volunteer outreach programs? That may sound cynical, but I’m betting the 18 of us, if we were really truly invested in benefiting the lives of those South Africans impacted by AIDS, could have done the exact same fundraisers and raised only a quarter of what we did and still … our cash would have gone a lot further than our presence.

So in terms of real, tangible value – and I’m sorry to oppose some of my colleagues here on this – I see voluntourism as counterproductive to volunteerism, and something we should be careful to differentiate. At the very least, we should have a healthy skepticism of the term and any organization that uses it.

chrisiconChris Jarvis: This seems like one conversation that is moving back and forth between two topics. On the one hand, as emphasized by Christine and Dainéal, we are concerned about doing harm through episodic volunteering abroad. This may be due to one of two (or more) factors. We’ve mentioned that there may be a lack of insight or considered intentions on the part of the individual who desires to volunteer while abroad or at home. The other factor could be the potential for incompetence or improper motivation of the nonprofit itself (such as using the cause or community to generate revenue or some other value at the expense of those being served).

On the other hand, we are discussing the topic of voluntourism as a practice and trying to evaluate its effectiveness. Here the conversation could be characterized as back and forth movement between effective and efficient leading to a consideration of other possible mechanisms that could result in a better outcome for the cause or community.

At Realized Worth, we take these valid concerns into account in all of our design, theory and practice. This means that we acknowledge the following realities:

  1. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and Volunteer Involving Organizations (VIOs) can vary significantly in resourcing, intent, competence, capacity, and ethics.

    Finding the right organization to volunteer with, whether at home or abroad, can be challenging. Many well-intentioned people end up supporting and working with organizations that prove to be a disappointment (this reflects J.K. Rowling’s thoughts). Most of these organizations, however, are quite the opposite, and without which our societies would be severely impoverished.

  2. People new to volunteering may not be able to tell the difference between good and bad volunteering.

    When people volunteer on an irregular basis or for the first time, it is very difficult to know whether the organization you are volunteering with is doing a good job or even the right job. At this early stage of volunteering we just don’t know what questions to ask or how to properly evaluate what may be going on at the organization. What’s more, when you’re new to to cause, community, issue or organization it is probably inappropriate to criticize or question. You’re there to learn. This becomes compounded when we factor in distance, ethnicity, culture, and more.

  3. The greatest result we can hope for through volunteering is a changed person (volunteer).

    In the Transformative Volunteering model (versus a Transactional Volunteering model) the goal is to see participating individuals changed at a psychological, convictional and behavioral level (see the research). The work is a means to this transformative change. We believe this result is required to address systemic issues on a geopolitical level.

  4. Volunteering experiences should never be at the expense of the beneficiary.

    To suggest that the beneficiary is more important than the volunteer, or vice versa, is a false dichotomy. Proper program design will avoid this undesirable volunteering experience. It is unfortunate, however, that due to the under-resourcing of NGO’s and and VIOs volunteers are often viewed as labor or worse, an unfortunate necessity. Equally so, volunteers must be educated to understand the realities facing the communities and issues they hope to benefit through their actions. Understanding the Three Stages of volunteers helps ensure that we guide people towards their highest level of contribution in the most beneficial way for those we intend to serve (see the research).

Finally, I would suggest that we explore how voluntourism may actually provide one of the most effective expressions of transformative volunteering. The conditions and environments of voluntoursim experiences are unique and offer many of the required elements for a transformative learning experience. Yet, as has been noted in research going back to 2012 further investigation is required to understand “some of the factors that prevent volunteer tourism from accomplishing societal transformation and how to foster transformative learning within volunteer tourism organisations, as well as adopting a community-based perspective on volunteer tourism, to understand the role hosts may play in forging a path of transformative learning and finally to address some of the issues around authenticity and emancipatory learning as volunteer tourism plays its part in redressing growing social and environmental issues.” [ref]Alexandra Coghlan & Margaret Gooch (2011): Applying a transformative learning framework to volunteer tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 19:6, 713-728[/ref]

What about you, reader? We didn’t really draw any hard and fast conclusions here, did you? Let us know on Facebook and/or Twitter what your own thoughts are.

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs for companies around the world. Want to discuss your program with us? We’ll be happy to hear from you! Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.